Jay Cormier on his Roadblock

Roadblock is a series of articles where I interview other designers, developpers, and others involved in the industry, to do a deep dive into a specific issue they’ve dealt with in a project. The goal is to add concrete examples to the mass of game design advice out there.

JV: Today I’m sharing with you folks a discussion with Jay Cormier, half of the design team behind Belfort, Junk Art, and In the Hall of the Mountain King, and now founder of Off the Page Games! Remember when Sen-Foong Lim talked about designing MIND MGMT? This time, we’re switching it up a bit as Jay will describe issues he ran into as a first-time publisher while working on that very same game!

First, can you give us a bit of background on the game at the stage where you ran into the issue?

The game is a one vs. many game, in which one player will secretly move around on their own hidden map, while the rest are moving around on the big board, asking questions to deduce the one’s whereabouts. The problem came up as soon as I became a publisher of this game. When we were the designers we actually said, “Oh that’s the publisher’s job to figure that out!” Little did I know that I would be that publisher!

JV: What was the problem, and when did you first encounter it? 

In the game, when the rogue agents ask a question to the one recruiter, the recruiter answers if they’ve been to any location with the requested feature (each feature appears 5 times on the board). If the recruiter HAS been on a location with that feature, then they place a Step token on one of those locations. But if the recruiter has not been on a location with that feature, they say no….aaaaand….that’s it. Or so we thought. While playtesting the game we realized that players wanted some way to keep track of this information. In a deduction game, not getting a success can sometimes give you more information than getting a hit! 

Example: If an agent asked the recruiter if they have ever been to a location with a Subliminal Billboard and the recruiter says they have NOT, then that’s a lot of information! This means that the agents know 5 spaces on the board that the recruiter has NOT visited up until this turn number (there is a time track off to the side to know exactly which turn it is).

So we started coming up with some ideas. Maybe one of the agents gets a notebook and that player can write notes down on a restricted size of paper. This didn’t really work because it wasn’t intuitive and players would forget — either to write it down, or to refer back to it later. Then we thought, what if the players also had a secret map? A duplicate of the board that was also dry erasable, so they could make notes on it. This was maybe a bit better, but still, only one player could really look at it at a time, and so it would be forgotten.

So then around this point is when I became the publisher of the game, and now I had to figure out how to do this! For awhile I was thinking I would have numbered tokens that would be placed on the board, possibly fitting into grooves or holes in the board. This proved to be costly as well as fiddly since there would need to be so many tokens. Also, it wasn’t versatile enough since it couldn’t say exactly what a player would want to say.

And that was probably the ‘a ha’ moment. If we want players to ‘say’ whatever they want on these tokens, then maybe these tokens need to be dry erase. We tried giving players dry erase tokens to use, and wow — what a difference! The game really came alive. Now all players could ALWAYS see the information that they have collected. No longer was the game about remembering information about where the recruiter had been or had not been to. Now players could see the hits and the ‘misses’ on the board, and this really helped the agents narrow in on the recruiter’s path! 

To clarify, when the recruiter now says that they have NOT been on a Subliminal Billboard, the agents then write out “1-8 X” (where 8 would be whatever the current turn number is) onto 5 different dry erase tokens (which we humourously call, Mental Note Tokens), and place on on each location that has a Subliminal Billboard. For the rest of the game, the agents can now easily see that the recruiter hasn’t been on those 5 spaces up to turn 8! 

JV: Had you ever encountered a similar problem before? Why was this one different?

There was another similar issue about components. It was with our Step tokens. Originally we had 16 different Step tokens – each with a number from 1 to 16. When the Recruiter placed a Step token onto a location, they had find the Step token with the correct number (the number that matched the turn that they visited that location) on the bottom and then place it in that location that they have visited. I tried a bunch of different ideas, and used some Facebook groups to brainstorm how to solve this (maybe it was a plastic token that had a hinge that folded out to reveal the number inside it). Once we came up with the Mental Note tokens we realized we could use these for our revealed Step tokens as well. 

So now we just needed generic Step tokens that didn’t have a number below it at all. Then when that Step token was revealed during play, the recruiter would announce which turn they were on that location, and the agents would use a Mental Note token and write that number on it. Worked perfectly and was way less fiddly!

JV: For a designer who does not intend on self-publishing, how do you think a publisher would react to a game requiring dry erase tokens or boards? We’ve seen a few of them recently –Silver & Gold, QE, Just One… As a publisher, would you see it as a plus or as a pain?

There is a pain side to dry erase (finding markers that don’t dry out too quickly, responding to numerous customer issues about dried out markers!), but I think the idea is — whatever is the best way to make the game work in the most functional and unique way possible. The game needs to be functional first and foremost. If the dry erase isn’t necessary and is only a nice-to-have, then I’d question it too. But if the dry erase is 100% needed to make the game work in the most efficient way, then it makes sense. It’s more cost effective and more environmentally friendly to use dry erase instead of tear-away pads that you’d use and then discard.

JV:We often talk about components in terms of table presence, but here those tokens are really mostly about making the players’ lives easier, taking a process that was annoying and forgettable and making it simple and straightforward. What would be your favorite component that just makes players’ lives easier in another game?

Great question. Can I say Game Trayz? Any time they’re involved in a project I get excited because they have such an amazing eye for functionality and improving the playing experience. The setup time is always reduced as you don’t have to open numerous baggies and dump out resources or tokens, and the functionality is often improved, while table space is preserved. For In the Hall of the Mountain King, Game Trayz make setting up the game super easy! All the tunnels are in this tray, all the resources are in this other tray! The Great Halls are stored in the bottom tray – but then they actually stand up in the tray so you can see which ones have been taken and which ones haven’t. Clever!

JV: Before stepping into the shoes of the publisher, how much would you try to tackle those kinds of component-based issues, whether before a pitch or working with a publisher on solving it?

If we could come up with some sort of component that was eye catching and helped get publishers excited, we’d do it. For Junk Art, we had to make all the unique pieces, so it had to be impressive and work immediately. For Akrotiri, we made little boats that held the resources as you moved them around. Our goal is to make the components and the prototype functional to ensure the game can be played as easy as possible. If the Akrotiri boats couldn’t carry the resources, then that would have negatively impacted the experience as you would either have to place them next to your boat or come up with some other solution.

JV: Well thank you very much Jay for this. It’s a very different perspective when we tackle those issues from the perspective of a designer of your pedigree who self-publishes. You brought up many good points for me to reflect on. Thank you and best of luck with the MIND MGMT Kickstarter!

In addition to the MIND MGMT Kickstarter, Jay runs a series of videos about self-publishing which are fascinating, and great insight about what it’s like to launch a business in this industry.

Becoming a Publisher, with Asger Granerud

Two weeks ago I shared a discussion I had in 2018 with Asger Granerud, designer of, amongst many other things, Shaky Manor, Flamme Rouge, Copenhagen, and 13 Days. This week, I bring you a follow-up discussion. Almost a year ago to this day, Asger and longtime colleague Daniel Skjold Pederson founded Sidekick Games, their own game company. I therefore had a chat with Asger about that particular endeavor, and thought I’d share it with you!

JV: Hey Asger! So since our first talk, you have made the jump to self-publishing! Congratulations on starting Sidekick Games! Could you talk about what made you so interested in it?

AG: It’s such a wide topic… let’s start with the financial aspect. Starting a publishing company is something Daniel and I have discussed loosely for years. Different games and different approaches over the years. 

Financially the potential upside is rather big. However, we are also moving risk onto ourselves. Personally, when new indie publishers are discussed, my biggest concern is always that they’ve underestimated how difficult it is to actually sell thousands of copies of a game. Doing so requires a lot of work, luck or investment, and sometimes I get the impression that people optimistically hope all it requires is a good game, and the rest will happen automatically… I’ve warned several friends and acquaintances in the above scenario NOT to publish themselves. 

JV: So what makes Sidekick Games different?

AG: I founded and ran Spilbræt.dk for 3.5 years. It is a board game distributor in Scandinavia, and though I’m no longer involved, it still carries 1000+ titles, and moves big volumes every month. This means I’ve been exposed to a lot of details of publishing. Not just the practical details of logistics, manufacturing, etc. but more importantly the network that goes with it. I am on a first name basis with distributors across EU, and we’re already pushing to have Bloom Town localised into several markets. 

JV: And what made you take the plunge now? 

AG: Two things influenced that. 1) We wanted a game that was simple to produce, acknowledging the fact that we aren’t manufacturing experts. Bloom Town fits the bill. 2) We had a lead with a small chance of success, to eliminate some of our risk, by selling the North American rights exclusively to Walmart.com. We pushed for this, and managed to find a solution all parties were happy with.

Normally the risk of self publishing is why I warn against it. None of us have a crystal ball, and though I am very proud of Bloom Town, I also realise that it’s ultimate success is largely out of our hands. However by choosing the right project, and being lucky with a lead, we managed to reduce the element of risk enough that we simply had to try. 

JV: What about the creative aspect of design? How did that translate to publishing?

AG: It has allowed us to dig deeper into the product design than we typically do. Often we do get to have some say when we sign with others, but having full control, and ultimately full responsibility, is of course a different matter entirely. 

We’ve spent months getting our company logo just right, and the details we’ve adjusted in the art have been minute. Even if we are a first time publisher, I have full faith Bloom Town can stand on a shelf and still sparkle despite being surrounded by much more experienced publishers 🙂

JV: A lot of self-published designers lament that they now don’t have time to design games, given how much of their time goes into business stuff. What’s your experience been like?

AG: Largely the same, but I hope it gets better. We’ve had to move real fast early in the process, find freelancers all over, coordinate them, and handle dozens of other details. Normally when we go to Spiel Essen we bring close to 15 games to shop around, and this year it is closer to being 5. 

We did realise it would be an issue ahead of time, so we did bring in friend and fellow game designer Danny Halstad as our project manager on Bloom Town. Without him it wouldn’t have materialised. 

JV: When did you decide you’d self-publish Bloom Town? Did you try pitching it to established publishers first?

At Essen 2018 we shopped it around to four of the top tier publishers, and a few of them still hadn’t declined when we pulled it. The kicker for going forward was the WM deal, and those initial talks started back in October 2018. 

JV: Is this a one-time occurence, or do you plan on self-publishing more games? If so, how would you decide what to self-publish and what to leave to other publishers?

We don’t have a big chrome plan rolled out. We do know we have an appetite for more, and want to see how we can move forward utilising what we’ve learned this time. Right now there is only one thing we worry about, and that is supporting Bloom Town and getting it attention in this crowded place. 

The “plan” is 0-2 games a year, and only our own designs. In practice we do not expect choosing what to pitch will be that difficult. For us to consider it for Sidekick Games, it has to be a relatively straight forward production, as we want to minimise risk and complexity. We are also mostly looking for the very mainstream games, as we want to put our energy into something that could potentially stay in print. Having said that, I can’t rule out that a vanity niche project might also have better chances at materialising from inside our own ranks. Time will tell!

JV: In our last talk you said “I do believe designers [who self-publish] have a possibility of reaching their audience directly, and when doing so you probably need to sell a 10th to make a living.” Has that math held up to real life? 

AG: There is no real life data yet, as we still haven’t sold a copy to an end user. But the back of the envelope math still holds, and some scenarios can even require less than a 10th.

The BIG difference is somewhat of a black box to me though, and that is the brand and company value we are building. Our goal isn’t to sell the company, the goal is to create a lean machine with a great team that releases 0-2 fantastic games a year, some of which manage to become evergreens. Should someone ask to buy it for a ridiculous amount of money, we’re not likely to say no, though. This value is hard to estimate as it is so diffuse, but it is also one of the major differences between self publishing and going through others. 

JV: There’s been a lot of “first level” advice on self-publishing. As an experienced professional in this industry, could you share some of the issues you were still surprised by on the publishing side?

AG: I’m not sure if I was surprised by the minute details that need to be coordinated across many people, to make such a project bloom, but if not I willfully ignored it initially. You will need a team, and unless you’re an expert on all relevant subjects, finding the right people is obviously paramount. 

JV: Can you give us a short list of those skills that you need to be successful?

AG: Project management, Logistics, Production planning, Graphic Design, Illustrations, Art direction, Sales, Marketing, Development, Rules editing, Product/industry knowledge, Maximizing Conventions. Whether you become an expert or hire one, you need all of those.

JV: Do you plan on self-publishing some of your already published games if/when the rights revert back to you?

AG: There are no plans to do so, but obviously it would be much less work!

JV: Without going into specifics, can you give us an order of magnitude of how much capital was invested (including art, graphic design, dev work, project manager) for Bloom Town? 

AG: If you include every expense we have had including manufacturing, marketing etc. we are probably closing in on $75K. However, our expectation is that would go down as we are deliberately working on keeping the project simple to manage, over cutting costs. 

None of the above includes any pay for project management, designer royalties or advances, etc. We get paid when it becomes a success 🙂 

JV: Well thanks a bunch Asger, and I wish you two all the luck in the world!